Crackdown begins on politicians’ book money

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Crackdown begins on politicians’ book money

As prosecutors prepare to charge opposition lawmaker Shin Hak-yong for accepting at least 150 million won ($147,300) at a book publishing event last September, the practice of politicians raising funds at such events is finally being declared a veiled form of bribery.

A special investigation team at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said Monday that Rep. Shin of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy received at least 150 million won in supposed book sales during an hour-long publishing ceremony last year.

By looking into Shin’s accounts, prosecutors discovered that he received nearly 100 envelopes containing 1 million won checks each and 10 envelopes containing 5 million won checks, totaling 150 million won. If added to the other, smaller donations, the total amount reaches well beyond 150 million won.

The prosecutors discovered that of the 150 million won they had found in Shin’s safe-deposit box, 39 million won was given by the Korea Kindergarten Association in what they said were apparent kickbacks.

Prosecutors are sanguine that they can prove the money exchanged was bribery for his influence-peddling as Shin proposed a revision to laws regarding early childhood education in April last year, five months before his book ceremony.

The politician alleges that the donations were legal and that there was no breach of the political funding law.

The prosecutors’ release of figures in Shin’s alleged graft case was the first time details of a book publishing event by a lawmaker were made public.

In Korea, book publishing events are a source of funding for political activities involving politicians, including lobbying by interest groups. The political funding law states donations to politicians at publishing events are legal and don’t have to be reported to tax authorities.

People invited to such events, many of whom are businessmen, customarily send envelopes full of cash or large checks in the form of a “donation” to purchase lawmakers’ biographies. Most of the books end up in the trash soon after the brief ceremonies.

Under the political fund-raising law, which was revised in 2004, lawmakers can accept a maximum of 150 million won through fund-raising events each year.

Individuals are restricted to annual donations of 20 million won or less.

But since book publishing ceremonies are considered private events, there’s no cap on their donations and lawmakers are not bound by law to report those earnings to the election watchdog. Likewise, there is no set price for books supposedly bought at such ceremonies.

The books themselves are self-promoting biographies written with the help of ghostwriters who receive between 10 million won and 30 million won for each publication.

Many lawmakers take advantage of the loophole in political funding regulations.

But the prosecution of Shin may alter or even end that loophole.

“Although the money was paid for books at a publishing ceremony, if it is proved that it was intended for influence-peddling, we can apply a bribery charge,” said a prosecutor involved in the investigation. “And if payments of millions of won are ridiculously high and way beyond common sense, we can prosecute on charges of receiving illegal political funds.”

According to the JoongAng Ilbo, three lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party and 15 from the opposition NPAD will soon be summoned for questioning on alleged influence-peddling charges.

The questioning of such a large number of lawmakers across party lines on graft charges and political fund law violations will certainly add to public distrust of the political establishment.

Because book publishing ceremonies are virtually the only source of political funds without regulatory strings attached, most lawmakers hold at least one such event during their four-year term.

When a lawmaker holds a book ceremony, officials from state-run institutions monitored by a parliamentary committee to which that lawmaker belongs usually attend the event to smooth relations through a large donation.

Only a few lawmakers have rejected the pervasive practice.

Among multiple-term lawmakers, Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung and lawmakers Lee Hahn-koo, Chin Young, Kim Tae-hwan, Han Sun-kyo and some others have never hosted publishing events.

Rep. Yoo Ihn-tae of the NPAD has never published a book during his 22-year political career.

“I was offered to publish a book three years ago, but I declined,” said the veteran lawmaker.

“If I were to write a book [on my political career], I would have to go very deep into details by revealing names of lawmakers involved in my story. If I could not do that [as a sitting lawmaker], the book would just become a mere self-promotion book. I do not wish to write such a book.”

BY LEE KA-YOUNG, KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr ]







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